Leaders need to earn the moral authority to lead

Culture has always been a critical factor in business success, but after the disruptions of the past year, this topic is firmly front and centre of many business discussions and strategy meetings.

How do we build our culture? How can we support our employees better? How can we improve our culture to deliver a better customer experience? These are just some of the questions I am regularly asked.

The challenge is that many leaders don’t fully understand how deeply their leadership style affects the culture in their organisation. There’s a pervasive idea that there’s a quick fix to culture, when the reality is that the entire foundation of the business should be built around what we call “cultureneering”, which is essentially creating a strong culture in a diverse workforce that lays the platform for obsessive customer service. It also requires leaders to rethink their roles, because change can only come from the top.

Start with an open mind

I can’t tell you how often I sit down with a business leader who proudly tells me that their door is always open to their staff. It makes me chuckle, because although I understand the sentiment, it is somewhat off the mark.

Employees are rarely worried about their boss’s door being open. They care if their leader’s mind is open. Do they have a leader who is able to navigate the sociopolitical landscape that makes doing business in South Africa so complex? Is their leader meaningfully addressing racial polarisation in the workplace? Does their leader make them feel respected, and treated with dignity? Has their leader created an environment in which everyone has a sense of belonging? These are the hallmarks of a leader with an open mind, and they go far beyond an open-door policy.

Earning the moral authority to lead

A business cannot build a strong culture that delivers exceptional customer service without a culture-driven leader at the helm. At its core, culture-driven leadership is about earning the moral authority to lead, as opposed to a structural or power-based authority to lead, in which leaders use power and hierarchy to get people to do what they want them to do. Not only can power be abused, but this type of leadership style creates a culture of fear and discomfort – and no extraordinary customer service has ever been delivered from that type of environment.

In order to earn the moral authority to lead, there are six key areas a leader must work on, namely:

1. Ensure your staff have granted you the authority to lead. You can’t demand it, you must earn it through building trust and respect;

2. Show your employees you are genuinely concerned about their physical, psychological and financial health and let them know you see them as human beings, not just units of production;

3. Show commitment to the growth and development of your people. Your employees need to know that you are committed to improving their skills, knowledge and ability to serve others;

4. Create a common purpose or sense of belonging. The foundation of a sense of belonging is a place of safety where people feel comfortable to speak up without fear, or without feeling they may be intimidated or victimised as a result of what they have to say. Get this right, and the sentiment of each and every employee will be clear: “This is a place where I belong because I am treated with dignity, fairness and respect, regardless of my background, my beliefs, my customs or my culture”;

5. Be clear about your vision. The greatest leaders get people to follow them to places where they would never have gone by themselves. Great leaders are infectious; and

6. Inspiration is the hallmark of a true culture-driven leader. People are not motivated by others. They are inspired to motivate themselves. Inspire people to become more than they ever thought they could be.

If serving is beneath you, leadership will be beyond you

Traditional leaders struggle to understand how you can be a servant and a leader at the same time.

One of the deeply entrenched paradigms that we see far too often is the idea that leaders should be served by their employees and not the other way around.

Here’s the problem with this logic: employees who are trying so hard to please their bosses lose focus on their customers. It’s impossible to pay attention to what customers want when all their focus is on is pleasing their manager.

This is why culture-driven leadership is about serving the people who serve the people. The shift is simple and elegant: leadership is not about being served. It’s about doing the serving.

Leaders who are able to embrace this idea and who have earned the moral authority to lead will not only build a strong culture, but they will entrench the idea that the purpose of business is to serve others. When this happens, employee paradigms shift away from being on a job and coming to work to earn a pay cheque, towards coming to work to genuinely care for and serve their customers. Money becomes the reward for doing good work – for employees and the business itself – and customer service takes centre stage. 

Imagine the possibilities.

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Ian Fuhr
Ian Fuhr is the chief executive of The Hatch Institute, a personal and business leadership coaching company. He is known as a serial entrepreneur who founded the Sorbet beauty salon chain

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